Published:  02:05 AM, 17 July 2017

Takeaways from BD visit of Sirisena

Sri Lanka and Bang-ladesh have signed 13 MoUs and an agreement during the three-day visit of President Maithripala Sirisena which ended on Saturday. While the fields covered by the MoUs are wide, relevant and impressive, their real worth will be seen only in implementation. Implementation is challenging because Sri Lanka's record of implementation of agreements has been poor.

This is partly due to inertia and partly due to entrenched political and economic stumbling blocks. Presi-dent Sirisena and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina are envisaging the setting up of joint ventures between the private and public sector entities of the two countries in a wide variety of fields including apparels and pharmaceuticals, according to a joint statement issued by the two countries at the end of Sirisena's visit.

The two leaders said the 13 MoUs on economic cooperation signed during the visit will lead to the signing of a free trade agreement by the year-end. Among the fields mentioned for joint ventures are agriculture and agro processing; fisheries; dairy farming, textiles; gems and jewellery, religious and eco-tourism;  health management, energy and power and shipping. A decision was taken to promote investments in the special industrial and economic zones of the two countries with both governments taking steps to guarantee investments; avoid double taxation; bring down tariffs; and reduce non-tariff barriers.

In this context, Bangladesh requested Sri Lanka to simplify the procedures for the registration of Bangladeshi pharmaceutical companies. The two leaders welcomed the signing of agreements between the investment promotion authorities and central banks of the two countries. They hoped that the talks on collaboration in coastal shipping will be concluded soon so that shipping services between the two countries could be started.

Bangladesh offered to share its experience in disaster management and agricultural production. It drew Sri Lanka's attention to the fact that many Sri Lankans are working in Bangladesh in services and professions and that these constitute the single largest group of workers from the South Asian region in the country.

It then sought reciprocal facilities for Bangladeshis to work in Sri Lanka. "The two leaders agreed to work together to take forward and facilitate the movement of citizens of both countries in a mutually beneficial manner," the joint statement said.

Two leaders decided to work together to promote South Asian cooperation, strengthen SAARC and regional organizations like BIMSTEC. To fight the scourge of terrorism and religious disharmony, the two leaders agreed to organize a broad-based dialogue on tolerance inclusion and pluralism in 2018.

Though the subjects covered by the joint statement and the MoUs are impressive, the snag lies in implementation. First of all, MoUs are not "agreements" which have to be implemented. They are only a wish list.

The only "agreement" signed during Sirisena's visit was on waiving visas for diplomats and officials of the two countries. Given the difficulty Sri Lanka is facing in entering into FTAs with China and Pakistan one wonders how an FTA with Bangladesh can be signed by the end of this year.

Further, going by the experience of the FTA with India, there are many issues which remain to be settled even if the FTA has been useful to Sri Lanka. There are problems regarding non-tariff barriers, rules of origin, and standards which have defied solution. There are issues in land acquisition, labor laws and tariffs.

Bangladesh wants its workers and professionals to work in Sri Lanka just as Sri Lankans are working in Bangladesh in great numbers. Though Sirisena has agreed to facilitate this, it is not known how he is going to assuage the Sri Lankans' feelings against foreign workers and professionals.

There is already opposition to Indians working in Sri Lanka with valid visas. The Sri Lankan construction sector has been clamoring for import for workers from Bangladesh to fill a yawning gap, but the Sri Lankan government is against hiring of workers from abroad.

There is an MoU between the state shipping corporations of the two countries but these two entities do not handle much business.

-AA News Desk

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